Among Christians who practice Lent, the Holy Week timeline is a time for reflection on the practices of Jesus in his last days prior to his death. Reflecting on Holy Week can be a spiritual practice to consider the place of those practices in our own lives. According to the Gospel of Mark, Jesus followed his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday by taking time on Monday during that week to publically drive out and speak against temple-based financial exploitation.
The cleansing of the Temple is documented in all four gospels. Three place it during Holy Week. Scholars have written that this event occurred in the area of the Temple known as “Solomon’s Porch,” which was open to Jewish and Gentile worshippers alike. It was a marketplace for the purchase of items needed for worship — pilgrims attending Passover celebration, unfamiliar with Jerusalem, may have purchased sacrificial animals at a higher price than elsewhere in the city. Poorer individuals, unable to afford a lamb, may have purchased overpriced sacrificial doves. Foreign currency, forbidden inside the Temple, could be exchanged, for a fee, for local currency to pay the annual Temple tax.
It has been argued that the High Priest may have received a percentage of the profit from the money changers and merchants, so their removal from the Temple would have caused a financial loss to those in power. It has been argued that the noisy marketplace atmosphere may have been disruptive to the atmosphere of worship. The text is unclear about the exact nature of the sin. However, it is clear that when Jesus saw the market, he became angry and turned over tables, driving out those exploiting the people and publicly calling them “robbers.”
Whatever the exact nature of the financial sin was that was occurring in the Temple at the time, the text in Mark suggests that after this act of clearing the Temple, those in power began to earnestly plot Jesus’ arrest and death. Jesus’ opposition to the money changers was directly related to his arrest and crucifixion later in the same week.
While I would like to identify with Jesus in this story, I realize I am more often in the position of the watching crowd. Or am I the merchant, lining my own pockets with the misfortune of others and making profits or receiving benefits from practices that exploit?
When I stop and consider this passage, I find myself challenged by Jesus’s righteous anger at exploitation. Did the people observing his rage see the marketplace as he did? Had they grown weary of the state of things and become numb? I wonder how many individuals of privilege and means walked through that courtyard unaware of its exploitation of the poor and the pilgrim because they had never been exploited. I wonder how many individuals of power assumed that the price of goods was fair market value and an equal burden for all because they had the means for their purchases. I wonder how many individuals were stunned by Jesus’actions, confused and outraged that he had accused well respected merchants and challenged well established practices because they had friends among the merchants?
This Holy Week I challenge myself, and you, to open our eyes to the exploitation around us and to join with Jesus in righteous anger and opposition to exploitation as a spiritual act of Lenten worship.
Many of us were raised without seeing exploitation around us because we have not ourselves had to experience it. To see exploitation, we must first see others through the eyes of the Creator. Often in our daily lives, social divisions explain away or justify exploitation. To see exploitation in its reality we must face the ugliness of our own prejudices that excuse exploitation.
In Christ Jesus there are no divisions by race, gender, nation, class, or sexual orientation. All are God’s workmanship, created with equal dignity and human rights.
The second step is to see exploitation not through my own lens, but by granting the experience of those around me equal say with my own experiences. It was during Holy Week that Jesus said “the poor you will always have with you” — suggesting that his followers would spend their time with the poor and disenfranchised rather than the powerful and connected. Jesus listened to the stories of others. He saw the exploitation and he called it by name in front of the powerful.
It is a holy practice to open my ears and eyes to the stories of my community. As a Christian, if I want to walk in the way of Jesus, I must — like him — see the exploitation around me and call it by its name.
The practice of listening and seeing is dangerous. Really looking and listening changes my view of my community and my own life. When I listen and see, I begin to question practices long established. I start to see that exploitation of others is not to be something ignored, but instead to be exposed and changed — and that that change may come at a financial or personal cost. In my own practice, I find myself wondering about community policing that targets minorities, seizure laws which exploit those who do not store their money in banks or who “look” suspicious, the rising problem of probation and legal fees resulting in debtor prisons — all of which fund the public safety infrastructure I benefit from every day.
Is my safety worth the freedom of others? When I see the unequal access to public education for children with disabilities and in less desirable neighborhoods in my community, I know it also has a cost. I can’t advocate for that to change and also hope to keep the status quo for my own children. When I educate myself and see the disparities in access to health care, education, and employment that others encounter that I do not encounter, I find I can no longer be passively unaffected. As a health service professional, I have to think about the priorities and funding sources of my profession. When my community, state, and country treat refugees and undocumented immigrants in an undignified manner — while I benefit from their labor in my community and on my dinner table — I know I need to ask hard questions of myself and my neighbors.
It is a spiritual practice of faith and hope to see reality for itself and to engage in the slow work of change without becoming discouraged. In this the last week of Lent, may we open our eyes together to see the realities of the people Jesus loves all around us. May we once again be filled with righteous anger at exploitation, rather than be numbed to its constant presence in our lives. May we call exploitation by its many names: theft, racism, classism, discrimination, trafficking. May we join in the work of the Kingdom.
Like Jesus before us, we too may step on the profits of the powerful, and we too may incur their wrath. In this Holy Week, Lord Jesus, give us the strength to see the exploitation in our communities; the courage to not grow numb in the face of its ubiquity; and the wisdom to act.
Tara C. Samples, Ph.D. is a grateful disciple of Jesus who believes that social justice is the responsibility of the Body of Christ which is called to speak for those whose voices are not heard by the powerful. She is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist and a Professor of Clinical Mental Health Counseling. Tara is a wife, a mother, and foster-parent. In her professional life, Tara speaks and writes on the psychological treatments of traumatic grief and trauma-spectrum disorders. Tara is as an advocate against injustice, violence, oppression and sexual exploitation in the church and in the world.